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Democrats to Pennsylvania voters: Get your mail ballots in

Joe Biden's campaign and his supporters are stepping up efforts to make sure voters know the correct way to fill out and return mail ballots.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro casts his mail ballot for the 2020 election on Wednesday in Norristown, Pa.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro casts his mail ballot for the 2020 election on Wednesday in Norristown, Pa.Read moreKRISTON JAE BETHEL / For The Inquirer

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro urged voters Wednesday to “drown out the noise” of misinformation about mail ballots as he cast his own at the Montgomery County Board of Elections.

He and other Democrats blamed President Donald Trump for that noise.

“The president has purposely orchestrated an effort to sow doubt in our democracy and sow doubt in our election system, and make it harder for Pennsylvanians to vote,” Shapiro said. “He has quite literally sued us here in Pennsylvania multiple times, to try and make it harder for people to participate in our democracy.”

Shapiro requested a mail ballot, filled it out, and dropped it into a box in Norristown, something allowed this year for the first time at county elections offices under Pennsylvania’s new election law. Some counties, including Philadelphia and its collar counties, are also opening new satellite elections offices to expand access to this form of in-person early mail voting.

His appearance was one of a few being organized across the state this week by Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign, which is stepping up its efforts to make sure voters know the correct way to fill out and return mail ballots. The former vice president explained the process himself in digital ads and during an appearance in Erie on Saturday, urging voters to avoid the problem of so-called naked ballots by placing their ballot in the inner secrecy envelope before placing that in the mailing envelope. Voters must complete and sign the back of that outside envelope.

More than 2.6 million mail ballots have been requested in Pennsylvania. But Trump’s months of relentless and baseless attacks on mail ballots as being susceptible to widespread fraud have turned Republicans off from using the method. So about 65% of the requests so far have come from Democrats, compared with just 25% from Republicans, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.

» READ MORE: Everything you need to know about voting in Pennsylvania, by mail or in person

U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, also a Montgomery County Democrat, dropped off a ballot she had received by mail. County Commissioner Ken Lawrence said he’s waiting for his to arrive, one of more than 200,000 ballots that have been requested in the county.

Lawrence accused Trump of “trying to scare people” out of voting by mail.

The president has mounted an aggressive campaign of lawsuits against Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, in local, state, and federal courts. His campaign has, among other things, sought to prohibit the use of drop boxes and require that poll watchers be permitted to observe satellite elections offices that aren’t official polling places.

“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen," Trump said during his Sept. 29 debate with Biden.

It has mostly been a losing legal battle, though the campaign has prevailed on some matters, including a state Supreme Court ruling last month that “naked ballots” can’t be counted.

Shapiro has been an active combatant. He led a legal effort in the state to halt changes in U.S. Postal Service practices that slowed mail delivery and sparked concerns about whether ballots would be delivered and returned on time. A likely candidate for governor in 2022, Shapiro has made the most of his political platform, accusing Trump of attempting to inject “a lot of noise and a lot of lies into the public discourse."

» READ MORE: Trump is making the 2020 election a recipe for chaos. How Philly is preparing.

In the meantime, legislative wrangling has continued in Harrisburg over last-minute changes to election rules, including a change that would allow “pre-canvassing” of mail ballots. Currently mail ballots cannot be opened until 7 a.m. on Election Day. But preparing them for counting sooner — as many states do — would allow for faster tallying, and lessen the likelihood of a days-long wait before results are known.

The State House last week approved a bill largely along partisan lines that would allow counties to begin pre-canvassing of mail ballots — something election officials say is their top priority as they brace for a deluge.

But the measure would also ban drop boxes and allow partisan poll watchers to work anywhere within the state — not just in the county where they are registered to vote — a move Democrats fear could be used to suppress and intimidate voters. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has said he would veto the bill in its current form.

“Give us a stand-alone bill that will allow these hardworking folks to pre-canvass the ballots," State Rep. Patty Kim (D., Dauphin) said during another Biden campaign event Wednesday, where she turned in her mail ballot at the Dauphin County Board of Elections. “Time is short, though. We have just a few days of session, so I’m not optimistic, but I’m hoping that we might give them some room to count all of the ballots.”